Friday, May 19, 2006

Snot Rockets

I have of late spent most of my rare time at home mowing the flora on my five acres of Solitude in Central Texas. Thanks to modern technology and Sears, a tractor with a 48" mowing deck is my saviour. Despite my raging torment of unattaching and removing the deck to extract a wayward rope that had entwined itself around the blades, and then putting it all back together, I love my mower. Mowing the property serves as a relaxing activity while I play patterns and games with the terrain, mower heights, tractor speed and the obstacle course that I live on (thorny mesquite bushes, pond, etc). The challenge of mowing a pattern that is as efficient as possible is akin to a chess game. I lose sometimes.

A major obstacle is my allergy to grass pollen. Those tiny misshaped granules that help procreate the many species of grasses wreck havoc on my immune system. The little mast cells that are the soldiers in the first line of defence in the mucus membranes bombard my nose, eyes and skin with histamine, setting off a cascade of mucus production.


Membrane cells secrete that viscous sticky stuff called 'mucus', chock full of proteoglycans, salts and enzymes that trap and degrade small foreign particles and agents as a protective mechanism. Yet, a hypersensivity to certain allergens such as grass pollen can elicit mucus production like no tomorrow and the nose becomes a running faucet. In that instance, it becomes less of a friendly 'protective' evolutionary function and more a nuisance and downright pain in the nose. It rightly earns the name: 'snot'.

This leads to the question: What does one do when he/she encounters an attack on all fronts by enemy allergens and the battle wages to the point where you can't keep up with the mucus production by snuffling it back up your sinuses?

Well, the old remedy that all outdoorsy people are familiar with: the 'snot rocket'.
Just aim well.

I read the following this morning in my recent issue of New Scientist in the section: The Last Word, where readers submit questions which are answered by other readers. Here it was; the 'snot rocket'.

Is it coincidence a human finger fits exactly into a human nostril. If not, why does my mum tell me not to do it?

Your mother may not approve, but there is a way to clear your nose without sticking anything inside it. It's called the "snot rocket". Just push against the side of one nostril to close it off, take a deep breath, close your mouth and exhale as hard and sharply as you can through your other nostril. You'll be amazed how fast the contents shoot out. Just make sure you tilt your head away from your body to avoid peppering yourself.

Nose-clearing tactics like the snot rocket mean there is no life-or-death reason for the co-evolution of digging digits and large, inviting nostrils. After all, nose blockage is easily managed by breathing through your mouth. In fact, a blocked nose is really only a problem if something gets lodged near your nasal bones, where it is dangerously close to your brain. That is a region where human fingers are too podgy to be of any use. A rather thrilling story of a primatologist, some tweezers and an engorged Ugandan tick comes to mind.

Sexual selection might have favoured the relationship of finger to nostril if, say, females in the Pleistocene preferred mating with males who picked their noses, or if males and females picked each other's noses in a courtship ritual. However, that would be taking reciprocal grooming a little far.

So we must conclude that, yes, it is mere coincidence that your fingers fit so nicely into your nostrils. I doubt the made-for-each-other argument is going to change your mum's opinion of rhinotillexomania. I suggest you demonstrate the snot rocket instead and see what she says.

Holly Dunsworth, State College, Pennsylvania, US

Note: I recall commenting to a close friend once "You know how close and trusting we are when I can pick the buggers from your nose." Better all out of the nose than half out........


  1. Thanks to modern technology and Sears, a tractor with a 48" mowing deck is my saviour. Despite my raging torment of unattaching and removing the deck to extract a wayward rope that had entwined itself around the blades, and then putting it all back together, I love my mower.

    If you think digging a rope out of there was fun, how about a length of rusty, old fencing that been just left lying along the fenceline, and which got wrapped tightly enough around the blade and shaft to pull the tractor sideways?

    The other end of the fencing was buried under a pile of stumps.

    At least it wasn't found by any livestock.

    But you are right— those things are wonderful when they work! I like how the buzzing, cutting sound changes as the vegetation changes.

  2. Ah, but I have!!! In fact, within a few days after the tractor arrived. I tore down the miles of barbed wire fencing from the pasture and depositited it in a huge mountain, ultimately carted off by your's truly during an electrical storm. Apparentlty there were a few stray lengths and I mowed one. I was under the deck for hours with wire cutters untangling that bugger.

    BTW, Good morning :)

  3. I mowed an 11 acre piece of land in south GA for a couple of years with a riding mower with the mowing deck under my feet (a belly mower) and it always had my head stopped up. After several years of this torment, I purchased a 1963 John Deere and a new flail mower that pulled behind it. It was perhaps the best thing I could have done for my sinuses. But the flail mower was about 5 times more expensive than the riding mower.